“What If the Babe Had Kept His Red Sox?”by Brandon Isleib
June 07, 2008
A lot of what sabermetricians do is, in some form or another, alternate history. Any sort of “adjusted” or “neutral” statistic has a few assumptions built in—usually sensible and correct assumptions, but assumptions just the same. Playing “what if?” is at the heart of most sports arguments and an ingredient in a good bit of useful sabermetric analysis.
Bill Gutman’s new book, What If the Babe Had Kept His Red Sox?, turns to the narrative portion of alternate history to bring up several interesting cases across the sports spectrum, and for the most part it turns out well. The book doesn’t stick with just baseball, though the plurality of the 12 chapters focuses on it; football and basketball have a few stories apiece, and boxing, hockey and even golf show up once each.
This variety is a tad frustrating to a baseball writer for a baseball site, but reading about other sports was informative, and Gutman’s treatment of each subject was deep enough that I didn’t have to go to another book to follow his narrative. Still, this book is best for a sports omnivore; better yet, it’s perfect for that relative who wonders why you deal in “all that stat junk,” as Gutman’s narratives and alternate histories are just begging for statistical analysis to come in.
The baseball chapters are generally well done. Gutman knows his history well enough that he avoids the myths of each story; he is clearly conversant with all his subjects. He never oversimplifies his narrative, but at no point is it hard to read, which is a nice accomplishment.
The main baseball subjects are: Babe Ruth staying in Boston; the Giants and Dodgers staying in New York; Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson integrating the majors in 1936 (whether by Bill Veeck taking the Phillies or the slower method of Ferdinand Morton’s weaving the Negro National League into the existing minor league structure); various trades; and the premature injuries and declines of various superstars. The latter two of those chapters are theoretically about all sports, but all the baseball players come first and the vast majority of the chapters are on baseball. Similarly, the three full baseball chapters are all in the first five chapters of the book. It feels like Gutman really wanted to write a baseball/football book or even just baseball, but other considerations forced him to diversify.
Perhaps not surprisingly, then, the baseball chapters are clearly the best ones of the bunch, and not just because I know the subject better. Gutman’s analysis is something like having Mike Bordick at shortstop: It may not be flashy or breathtakingly spectacular, but it’s solid in everything and cleanly fields everything it takes on. In a book with multiple open-ended hypotheticals for subjects, reliability is crucial, and Gutman nails it, getting all the proper details in there but avoiding unrealistic tangents.
The easiest example is the Babe Ruth hypothetical that titles the book. Gutman sets out the true reasons why Ruth was traded (it wasn’t financing No, No, Nannette; Harry Frazee needed cash, only the Yankees and White Sox would trade with Boston, and the Yankees not only offered megacash but loans so Frazee could finish actually buying the team) and offers up several alternate scenarios.
Frazee not needing money at the time he did (the Roaring Twenties were about to provide an economic boom, but how could Frazee know?) could have stopped it all, but Gutman mainly explores the on-field and off-field consequences of Ruth staying in Boston. Of course, Ruth would lose a few home runs playing in Fenway Park versus Yankee Stadium, but Gutman further notes that he would not have played in the even-friendlier Polo Grounds for the first few years he was a Yankee, and Yankee Stadium likely would not have been built (as the huge attendance figures the Yankees were getting was what got them evicted from the Polo Grounds by the Giants). Lou Gehrig might have become the very different face of a Yankee team that was not quite as good as it actually was, and the pitching flow from Boston to New York would not have been as pronounced had the Babe kept the Sox in at least somewhat of a good state.
There’s not a whole lot of the preceding that would surprise diehard baseball fans, but it’s accurate, it’s plausible, it’s got plenty of new details for the casual fan (“Babe Ruth was a Yankee in the Polo Grounds?”) and it’s exactly the type of thing that can move into a statistical analysis without a lot of difficulty. In this, the book has plenty of value. I’m generally trusting him that the non-baseball hypotheticals are plausible, but since his baseball ones were on target, that’s not much of a stretch.
It was refreshing to have a more mainstream book that did its homework properly, covered its bases and made sensible conclusions. Also, it was nice to see that not all the hypotheticals were as famous or obvious to sports fans as Ruth’s; several of the trades and superstars were a little off the beaten path, with the discussion of the Senators trading manager Gil Hodges to the Mets being the best. Once again, diehards know about it, but it’s a perfect tidbit to get someone you know into a deeper of study of the game.
Although the book is generally good with its scenarios, there is one on which I must disagree: that Lou Brock could have flourished if he had stayed with the Cubs into the Leo Durocher era. Gutman sets out how Brock’s coaching in St. Louis helped him stop focusing on power and just play his game, which is clearly true. Where Gutman goes astray in my view is by saying that once Durocher arrived in Chicago, Brock could have undergone the same transformation:
“Would Lou Brock have been just as good if he had stayed with the Cubs? Probably, especially if he had a manager who saw his talents the way [then-Cardinals manager] Johnny Keane did, and turned him loose on the bases. Durocher certainly would have. He was simply too great a talent to hold down.”
If you’ve never heard of Adolfo Phillips, that sounds about right, but read this Rob Neyer piece if you don't know his story. I can’t say that Durocher by that time would have helped Brock at all. Of course, judging by the back of the book, this book is trying to be “an argument starter, not an argument settler,” so I guess my beef on this point is exactly what Gutman wanted me to do.
I have two other semi-connected gripes with this book. First, some of the alternate scenarios seem a bit of a stretch not in terms of plausibility but in terms of being a true hypothetical. Sure, the Braves’ history would be different if John Smoltz hadn’t been traded for Doyle Alexander, but the Tigers probably wouldn’t feel quite so bad if they had gotten a world championship off it either. Saying that doesn’t really shed a lot of light on anything. It made for a nice discussion in the book, but it didn’t really play anything out as much as it recounted what happened to Smoltz and Alexander. An alternate history has to chart a course, and not all the smaller bits did that.
Second, Gutman’s writing on each sport is pretty different, and considering that he’s clearly a quality writer on baseball (and football, it appears), that’s a shame. Gutman seems to have fond memories of earlier eras for all the sports he covers, which is fine; he’s been writing for decades and is entitled to that. It fits pretty well in baseball too, where Gutman exercised his historical muscles all the way back to the turn of the century.
But when he calls the NBA “pure entertainment,” or when he presents an alternate scenario of the NHL not expanding so fast and preserving and honoring its heritage better, it feels like he’s cloaking a “good old days” rant in a hypothetical. I think that’s accidental on his part, but it still made me cringe. He presents his case with good detail and solid reasoning, and I agree with his conclusions, but they dragged the book down significantly.
Fortunately, there aren’t many moments like that, but that’s part of why they’re so frustrating when they show up. Having just one hockey or golf or boxing story in there made it stand out even worse: There was a consistent body of baseball and football writing that didn’t connect when it dabbled in other areas. It felt like listening to a CD where the artist was asked to include some sort of single, but it disrupts the album by being far from what the album was about. (Thankfully, unlike when this problem shows up on albums, Gutman doesn’t have a guest rapper.)
Do those concerns make it a bad read? Hardly. Stat geeks or pure baseball fans would probably be turned off by this book—not much they haven’t already covered or read about somewhere, leaving a book on hypotheticals in sports they don’t like—but this would be a great book for those who know only what they get on television. For anyone whose passion for baseball isn’t bordering on the insane, there’s solid analysis and several reasons for the curious to dip into more advanced studies.
This book is designed to challenge casual sports omnivores, and although I’ve never been one, the book seems to accomplish that goal. Just like Mike Bordick, it’s never going to bowl you over, and it’s not what you’d choose over a deeper, more stat-savvy book, but it’s a solid upgrade on several bookshelves.
References and Resources
What If the Babe Had Kept His Red Sox? is authored by Bill Gutman and published by Skyhorse Publishing.
Brandon Isleib is a lawyer and writes about stuff sometimes. He can be reached via the electronic mails.